When the Bottle Rockets first thought about recording an album of songs by Texas songwriter Doug Sahm, Brian Henneman had a few concerns. He worried that Bottle Rockets fans, familiar with the band's fuzzed-out alt-country sound, wouldn't like the stripped-down barroom country-blues that a Doug Sahm record would give them. He also wondered if fans of Sahm's old band, the Sir Douglas Quintet, would appreciate a bunch of grizzled redneck rockers from Missouri taking on their songs.
Most of all, though, Henneman wasn't sure if they could pull it off. "The funny thing is, before this record, any time we tried to sound like something else, we ended up sounding like ZZ Top," Henneman says. "We try to sound like Iggy and the Stooges, and it sounds like ZZ Top. When we don't try, we sound like what we sound like, but whenever we've tried to sound like somebody else it always comes out like ZZ Top. But for this we just wanted to have a natural sound, not so much mondo distortion like we always have. So we turned the amps down and didn't use any distortion. If we'd turned it up like always, I'm sure it would have ended up sounding like ZZ Top."
Whatever they did differently, it worked. Songs of Sahm, released late last year on Bloodshot Records, is a top-notch tribute, both raucous and respectful. The band's turned down and more restrained than on their previous records; they sound like a veteran Texas bar band. Henneman says the band's longtime fans are satisfied, even if they are anxious for another original record. (Henneman says they hope to have one out by next spring.) And the Bottle Rockets' recent performance in San Antonio—"Doug Sahm ground zero," as Henneman describes it—was well-received by Sahm's friends and family. "Doug's daughter asked us to sign a copy of our CD, where we're doing her dad's songs," Henneman says. "It was a strange scene, but it was cool. It was a magical evening."
Sahm, a San Antonio native, was a big influence on the emerging country-rock sound of the late ’60s with songs like "Mendocino" and "She's About a Mover." He had slight commercial success, though, and remained a cult favorite until he died in 1999.
"We've all just loved Doug Sahm forever," Henneman says. "When he died a couple of years ago, it didn't get much fanfare nationally, so we took it upon ourselves to do something in his honor. We had two reasons. The first is that he deserved it, but we also wanted to prove how much we loved him. Most people probably wouldn't be able to tell how big an influence he's been on us. It doesn't necessarily come out in our original music, so if somebody did a tribute album they probably wouldn't ask us to be on it anyhow."
Henneman, a former roadie for Uncle Tupelo, formed the Bottle Rockets in the early ’90s. Their second record, The Brooklyn Side, led to a deal with Atlantic Records, which dropped them after the follow-up, 24 Hours a Day, didn't sell as well as expected. More bad label deals followed, but last year the band ended up at Chicago's Bloodshot. "I don't know why we didn't do it years ago," Henneman says. "We were hell-bent to see how many bad record deals we could land, I guess."
Now that the band has finally found a stable company to support them, though, the Bottle Rockets had to provide some turbulence of their own. Guitarist Tom Parr quit the band after recording Songs of Sahm, leaving Henneman, bassist Robert Kerns, and drummer Mark Ortmann as a trio.
"It's working out well," Henneman says. "He's happy. We're happy. We're just a three-piece now. He'd been doing it for nine years and was tired. I can't blame him. We've done everything we're probably ever going to do. We've been to Europe, been in Rolling Stone, been on TV. He just didn't feel like getting in the van for another year, and there's no job worse than this one if you don't feel like doing it."
After 12 years on the road full-time—three with Uncle Tupelo and now nine with the Bottle Rockets—Henneman has adjusted to the touring life. It's not quite as exciting as it used to be, he says; the week-long binges of the mid ’90s are over, and now the band's making enough money that everybody gets his own bed at night. "We don't get our own rooms, but at least we get our own beds. It used to be five guys in one room. As long as it stays like this, it beats working the same job every single day."